Felicia Loud is so palpably there in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so alive as Billie Holiday, it’s disappointing that she doesn’t take us farther with the role.
You will get your money’s worth at this smooth (too smooth) Strawberry Theatre Workshop staging. A robust take on Bessie Smith’s “Baby Doll,” in which Loud’s briefly happy Holiday revels in the life force of her idol’s music, is just one extraordinary musical moment in a breezy 70-minute show that includes deft renderings of many of Holiday’s own standards.
But I don’t think 70 minutes with Billie Holiday would, or should, be breezy. Lanie Robertson’s play imagines what Holiday must have felt toward the end of her life performing a gig at a modest jazz club in Philadelphia. After a year in federal prison for heroin possession, her license to appear in any New York nightclub that sold alcohol had been revoked, preventing her from making a decent income.
Holiday, in between tunes, shares her life’s story with us in an exhaustive way that’s only plausible if we believe the monologues are fueled by an impossible need to both address and tamp down the anger she feels at her own rueful resignation. “Singin’s always been the best part of livin’ for me,” she tells us. And as a concert, the show is impeccable. Loud is performing, not impersonating. She gives us the prickly warmth of the icon’s singular voice without imitating its idiosyncrasies as if they were cheap party tricks. She captures the valiant spirit of Holiday in song.
She just doesn’t chase down the bitter difference between Holiday in song and Holiday in life.
Director MJ Sieber isn’t the first to fail at this particular part of his task. Loud previously led Lady Day in 2004, when director Jacqueline Moscou also didn’t get her to cut deep enough. Loud’s in fine form here—I can’t stress enough the wonder of her confident physical and vocal presence—but she’s still not quite crouching into the necessary attack mode behind Holiday’s melancholy. “Attack mode” is no exaggeration of what’s required to make the play crackle: Loud’s furious first line, heard from backstage, is “I can’t! I can’t do it!” After a couple of songs, it’s followed in quick succession by Holiday’s slams at Philadelphia (“Philly’s been a rat’s ass to me”), at the New York cabaret license ruling (“I love to sing and they won’t let me”), and, most frequently, at the white establishment—and that includes any whites at the tables around her. “I knew a nice white person…once,” Holiday cracks. “They’re just like us…only meaner. Only difference between them and us is our black is on the outside.” The lines are played for the sadness they invoke instead of for the unsettling truth that inspired them. They don’t sting.
There’s something wrong—something distressingly Seattle, to be frank—when we can sit with complete comfort during such comments and pity Holiday while congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come in the struggle for racial equality. This isn’t a history play—we’re keeping company with a black artist who knows she’s lost her war but who can’t help rallying for a few final battles now that she’s armed with a mike and a spotlight. The musicians—Ryan Shea Smith and LeNard Jones provide solid accompaniment on piano and drums—have to be on the alert, wary of Holiday straying too far from stage patter. Yet Sieber never gets Loud to hone the passive-aggressive pounce Holiday practices over and over again on her captive audience. When Loud, referring to her pianist, says “Jimmy here keeps me in line” or “Jimmy’s so upset—he worries about me” it isn’t clear what exactly Jimmy might be worrying about. Is it Holiday’s drinking?
Loud eventually launches into an accusatory, disgusted “Strange Fruit,” the famously languid melody about lynching. We’re dazzled. We applaud.
We should be wincing.